Government policy muddle is stalling production of biodegradable plastic

A lack of coordination among multiple ministries of government has led to logjam; several manufacturers stare at an uncertain future

Updated - January 21, 2023 02:20 am IST

Published - January 20, 2023 09:43 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Single use plastic carry bags still in use at Ernakulam Broadway market. Photo used for representation purpose only.

Single use plastic carry bags still in use at Ernakulam Broadway market. Photo used for representation purpose only. | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

Is ‘biodegradable’ plastic made in India actually biodegradable? Eight months after the Centre banned single-use plastic and paved the way for the use of biodegradable plastic, a lack of coordination among multiple ministries of government has led to the question remaining unanswered. A consequence of this is that several manufacturers, who are now unable to manufacture single-use plastic goods and invested in making biodegradable alternatives, are unable to produce them and stare at an uncertain future.

Biodegradable cups, plates and packaging film are treated with particular additives that naturally degrade once disposed of into the open. They are different from compostable plastic in that the latter while decomposable still needs to be collected and processed at a dedicated facility. Because collecting and transporting light, single-use plastic goods — forks, knives, wrapping film, cigarette packet covers — to processing facilities are economically unviable, they end up as litter and harm the soil. That’s why the Centre banned their production but allows plastic goods above a certain thickness (120 microns) to be produced because recycling networks exist to collect and process them. Biodegradables, because they don’t need to be collected, are a potential alternative. However, they are costlier to make and conclusive evidence that they fully degrade in all environments is still awaited.

“The BIS has established a provisional protocol of testing biodegradable plastic that says 90% biodegradation should be achieved to pass the test which may take up to two years. A sectional committee there will establish a standard after further reviews,” said Sunil Panwar, CEO, Symphony Environmental India, which offers additive technologies that when added to regular single-use plastic makes them biodegradable.

Mr. Panwar’s and a few other firms have supplied this to small-scale plastic manufacturers in India. However they say they have run into a problem. Because it will take a minimum of two years to check if the plastics can indeed degrade to at least 90%, the Environment Ministry in its notification of July 2022 banning single-use plastic allowed manufacturers to get a ‘provisional certificate’ valid till June 2023 from the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) allowing them to make biodegradable plastic goods. Such a certificate could be procured if a manufacturer obtained an ‘interim’ test report from the Central Institute of Petroleum Technology (CIPET), or other accredited testing labs.

“When I submitted an interim test report to the CPCB for a licence, it was rejected because they insisted that they would only consider a test that showed 90% degradation as valid. This is unfair as nowhere in the rules does it say that ‘interim’ means 90% [degradation],” Divesh, who goes by one name, and is proprietor, Siddhivinayak Polymers, Ahmedabad, told The Hindu. He said he had invested nearly ₹five lakh in the testing but was unsure how to recoup his investments made in producing polymers and adhesives.

Suramya Jain, who runs Adinath Polymers in Madhya Pradesh, said about 1,500 polymer manufacturers in India, including him, were in a similar predicament. “Based on tests on our samples, we have achieved 3% degradation in 45 days. However similar tests in the U.K. have achieved 90% in two years and they have been certified so. So it will definitely work,” he told The Hindu. “The government on one hand claims to want to control plastic pollution but isn’t helping local manufacturers.”

Unproven products

An official affiliated to the Environment Ministry and aware of the CPCB’s policy position, but who declined to be identified, told The Hindu that the agency’s hands were tied. “The CPCB doesn’t create the standards or the rules. As long as the CIPET can say that the tested product is biodegradable, it can give the certificate. But if the CIPET says that a product has degraded 5% or 10%, in a certain period, the CPCB can’t assume it will disintegrate entirely. There’s a standard testing process that the CIPET will follow and that will take its own time. If unproven products were let out into the environment we will have a much bigger problem.”

Emails and requests for comment by The Hindu to Shishir Sinha, Director-General, CIPET, were unanswered as was a request to the Bureau of Indian Standards.

The logjam between government departments has reached the highest levels of government with a committee of experts led by V.K. Saraswat, Member, NITI Aayog, having met multiple times to evolve a solution. A report by May 2022 highlights the impasse: “Considering the testing period requirements and the limited number of testing accredited laboratories in our country, the industry may be given adequate time of at least three years before the implementation of the provision of PWM (amendment) Rules 2021…biodegradable plastic that has been tested to meet International Standards  and shows promising results in the initial test against Indian Standards in laboratories could be given provisional approval to be used in the country for a period till the test results in India are completed.”

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